Monday, November 27, 2006

Pucker Up! A Taste of Tamarind

This past weekend I was lounging on the soft-sand, turquoise-water beach of south-east Zanzibar, equidistant from the ocean and a crystal-clear pool. There, between catnaps, I read the first few sections of John Reader’s fascinating epic Africa: A Biography of the Continent. One of the many things I learned was that humans likely evolved from primates when our ancestors began exploiting the opportunity to forage for food during the day, while most carnivores in the East African savanna were sound asleep. These daytime adventures required long hours under the hot, tropical sun, and, over time, the individuals who flourished were those who started to walk upright – which exposed less surface area to direct sunlight – and those who lost their thick coat of hair. Eventually, Reader says, we humanoids evolved to boast the most efficient cooling system of any mammal.

Very interesting stuff, and very coincidental to be reading it under that same tropical East African sun, where every move is sweat-inducing. Reader also says that the way our cooling system developed – sporting well-developed sweat glands, for example, instead of a muzzle – actually made the evolution of a large brain physiologically possible. It is this large brain that allows us to solve problems. Problems such as: My body may be an efficient cooling machine, but I feel hot. What should I do? Ah, yes, I will invent something called a refrigerator and use this nifty appliance to chill water into tiny cubes. Over these ice cubes, I will pour a beverage that will quench my thirst, give me a quick burst of energy, and jolt awake my taste buds with a puckery tang.

In other words: When in Zanzibar, I will drink tamarind juice.

The tamarind tree is native to the East African tropics. Its fruit is a long pod, and inside the pod are shiny, brown seeds surrounded by a thick, rust-colored pulp. When the pod is picked, it dehydrates into coarse, stringy fibers, which makes the tamarind that you, say, purchase at a Zanzibari market and carry with you back to Zimbabwe, distinctively unattractive (see photo). It is the pulp that you eat, and that is packaged and sold as tamarind paste.

Mark and I first drank tamarind juice during breakfast at the Tembo House Hotel on our first morning in Zanzibar. We could not stop refilling our glasses. The juice was sweet and sour with that tell-tale tamarind texture of almost syrupy thickness. Today, back in Zimbabwe, I used our “imported” fresh tamarind to make this recipe. We puckered our lips, and imagined the beach.

Tamarind Juice (Maji ya Ukwaju)
Adapted from A Taste of Zanzibar: Chakula Kizuri
Serves 8

4 cups of water, plus 3 cups
½ pound / 230 grams tamarind pods*
1¾ cups sugar

Place the tamarind pods and 4 cups of water in a large saucepan and soak the pods for one hour. Put the saucepan on the stovetop and bring the mixture to a boil. Cool.

Your next task is to remove all the stringy bits and seeds from the pan. I did this with a combination of my hands and a strainer. First, I used my hands to pick out the seeds from the pot. The membrane and any remaining pulp around the seeds should be soft and can easily be separated from the seed. Discard the seeds and return the membranes and pulp to the pan. Some seeds may have broken apart – I found that these bits are most easily captured with a fine strainer.

When all the strings and seeds are gone, use an immersion blender to blend the remaining liquid. Strain again. Add the sugar and 3 more cups of water and boil again for five minutes. Taste the liquid and add more sugar if you think it is necessary. Chill. Serve over ice cubes.

*Miriam, a Tanzanian blogger, has also recently written about tamarind juice, and she combines it with mango to create, I must say, a much more photogenic beverage. Since most people don’t have access to fresh tamarind, she helpfully recommends Laxmi Brand natural tamarind concentrate for recipes that call for tamarind, including juice recipes. Unfortunately, I don’t have any tamarind paste with me here in Zimbabwe; otherwise, I’d try making tamarind juice using the paste, and advise you on how much to use. If anyone attempts this substitute – please let me know what you discover! I’m sure your experimentation will be worth it.


Anita said...

This is very popular in North Indian homes too, during hot summer months. Here it is called 'Imli (tamarind) ka sheera'. Sometimes, just a pinch of salt is added to tone down the sourness and to replenish the salts being lost due to profuse sweating!!

And Carolyn, while you still have some tamarind pods, you may smoosh some with salt (with the outer covering removed and suck - a favorite treat in younger days (and of pregnant women!).

Melissa CookingDiva said...

Great post...In Panama, tamarind is very popular too!

Carolyn said...

Anita and Melissa - Sounds like tamarind has made its culinary mark around the world! I do have some left, Anita, so I'll try adding a bit of salt. Thanks!